Sunday, June 1, 2014

Customer Service by Algorithm: Airlines Optimize for Functionality, Profit

While you may have tired of reading posts about airlines and customer service, I came across this article, Airport Confidential, in the March 3 issue of Time Magazine. While the majority of the article is behind a registration wall, I'll give you a basic synopsis. In the article, they go behind the scenes with American Airlines and provide you with a peek into their flight management system and airline cancellations.

Nicknamed "The Cancellator", the MRP-like software manages all of the carrier's flights across the fleet. In calculating and managing their operations, it takes into account a broad range of rules and considerations like flight crew availability, plane availability, and a host of other considerations. It makes decisions and calculations in real time, attempting to optimize for things like connecting flights, sometimes delaying take-off of one flight in order to ensure an optimal level of connections.

The article details how considerations like limitations on the hours that pilots or flight crews can work provide alarms or penalties that also must be considered and calculated into the schedule. While everyone understands weather, the article points out how complex and intertwined the entire system ecosystem is, where planes and flight crews all need to be in specific places and specific times in order for the entire system to operate. It mentions an example of one time when weather delays made things so bad for JetBlue, that they had to suspend their entire system just to move planes and crews back to the proper starting points for, essentially, a system reboot. This is Just-In-Time airline passenger manufacturing.

The Implications of Algorithm-based Airline Operations
Reading the piece, the big picture message that that they sell you on is, "flight delays and cancellations? It's not our fault. It's the system." At least, that is the thrust of the piece. But there are a number of other things that I took away from reading it.

First, system operation factors like delays and cancellations are not really differentiators in terms of the airline product. More or less, what's implied by the piece is that all of the airlines now use these same kinds of systems. Sure, you may be grumpy because XYZ airline missed your connecting flight, but that missed connection was equally likely on every other airline. Efficiency, as managed by the algorithm, should essentially deliver functional parity, depending upon how tightly you control the input parameters and the tolerances.

One example of the how the algorithmic performance might be tweaked would be to adjust the available resources. If you have flights that are being delayed by late flight crews, you could eliminate that by having 2x the number of flight crews, with one set left idle in the various cities. You might still encounter situations where weather stranded crews in locations, but with double the number of required resources, the chance of unavailable resources would be reduced. But it would also be an increased expense for the airline.

While some of the algorithmic factors may essentially be "acts of god", you've got to know that others are driven by business operating strategies. The article alludes to this in it's list of factors that are more likely to get your flight canceled. If United Airlines is running four flights a day from San Francisco to Chicago and two of those flights are only at 60% capacity, they can cancel one of the less full flights and remap passengers to the various empty seats, schedules be damned. From an operations standpoint, you're going to want to minimize those empty seats, and since the entire flight ecosystem is so complex, the business can easily attribute the cancellation cause to a host of other reasons -- flight crew delays, weather in another part of the country, or airport flight controls.

The Algorithmic Impact on the Customer Service Bottom Line
Most businesses these days are managed by sophisticated software and algorithms, so it's hardly surprising that a business that's as complex as an airline wouldn't use software to manage flights. The Time Magazine piece paints the airline operational algorithm in an "algorithm is god" perspective, ala Google's search algorithm. For the airline and their front line customer service, this is a helpful message -- "hey, it wasn't us, it was the algorithm. All of that cancellation stuff is beyond our control."

But there's a big difference between the airlines and Google or the software that runs an Amazon fulfillment center. You measure Google and Amazon by the results of the process, while the airline result is as much about the process of getting from point A to point B as it is the result.

For me, this article was another important lesson in understanding why the base level of service provided by an airline is probably more important than any 'premium' incentive. Take my recent flight to Chicago on United Airlines as an example. Because San Francisco is a United hub and Chicago is also a United hub, there are several flights back and forth each day. With the frequent schedule, there are multiple schedule options and lots of seats, so you can usually find a lower priced ticket on a plane with more open seats. But since it's a regular route with more flights, it's no problem for United, via their algorithm, to cancel the flight and pack the surrounding flights. Contrast that with an airline light JetBlue or Virgin America. With fewer flights, their ecosystem is probably more dependent upon maintaining schedules than optimizing for capacity.

And because the major carriers can do more to optimize for capacity, there are fewer empty seats, more 'Premier' passengers on a given flight, and correspondingly less chance of upgrade. It's not just your imagination. It's why, nowadays, you're more likely to have an empty middle seat on a JetBlue flight than a United flight.

This is why the base level of service, things like how much space you have in economy class and whether the airline charges for checked bags, is so important. The simple reality is that, unless you pay a premium surcharge for seat class upgrade, you can expect to ride in a packed economy seat on a full flight. Wouldn't you rather have that extra inch or two of leg room and, ideally, not have to battle for overhead space with uncle Fred and aunt Ethel?

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